The notion of ‘tough love’ in social policy drives me up the wall. It seems to stem from the idea that if we are sufficiently hard on people they will stop doing things that we think are wrong. I think this a pretty flawed approach to policy and one that is certainly not backed up with research. It is perhaps exemplified by the war on drugs. This has been deeply unsuccessful at actually reducing violent crime related to drugs, or even consumption of drugs themselves but is continued with because alternative policies are seen as being ‘soft’ or ‘giving in to drug users.’ This is despite the fact research indicates that harm minimisation type policies have better public health outcomes and fewer social costs. It is also seen in public campaigns to reduce obesity which tend to focus on shaming people who are fat out of existence. This is despite the fact that shame has been shown to be counter-productive as a motivator and fat phobia actually makes it more difficult for fat people to engage in exercise in public spaces because it opens them up to harassment and abuse. People seem to be so caught up in the idea of not letting people who behave in ways that are not socially approved ‘win’ or ‘get away with it’ that we tend to enact policies that fly in the face of evidence.
Harsher punishments for crimes such as the death penalty have been proven to have no impact on rates of violent crime and yet many countries continue to use these inhumane tactics because being ‘tough on crime’ tends to be an electoral winner – even if it doesn’t work. On a micro level, it has been shown that children with behavioural difficulties at a young age are taught how to express their emotions verbally and are listened to, acting out decreases and their grades improve. This has been far more successful in terms of outcomes than ‘tough love’ type policies which focus on discipline and harsh consequences for acting out. In the same vein, zero tolerance policies in schools have been shown to be only successful at removing students who need school the most from schools whereas restorative justice type programmes have been shown to have much greater success rates in terms of student outcomes in regards to discipline and improving behaviour.
A common consequence of hardline policies, whether they are applied in schools or society at large is that they tend to, due to biases in enforcement, unfairly target marginalised people, particularly those who do not conform to socially accepted standards of behaviour. One only has to think about the number of police taserings and shootings of people of colour and people with intellectual disabilities to make this connection. Some times zero tolerance only means zero tolerance for some people.
I wonder what the world would be like if we enacted evidenced based policy, particularly social policy that is created from a place of compassion and collective responsibility rather than ‘toughness’. Hardline policies are divisive. They serve to foster and ‘us and them’ mentality rather than fostering a community that understands how our outcomes are interdependent. I want to live in a world we strive to do what works when it comes to reducing social ills such as crime rather than getting one up on marginalised people and punishing them for anti-social behaviour that more often than not is linked to structural oppression. I am tired of fear-mongering and brutality, not only is it unnecessary it does not actually work. I know many people will dismiss this as the words of a bleeding heart liberal, but there are cold hard facts at play here. ‘Tough love’ does not work, it is time to follow the facts and change the way we think about social policy.